Division Kings, Pats Aim Higher
Baltimore Ravens running back Bernard Pierce (30) is tackled by New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, top, defensive end Chandler Jones (95) and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
Baltimore — The New England Patriots put on a performance worthy of a division winner.
Making it even sweeter was that it came at the expense of the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who bounced New England from the postseason last season.
Logan Ryan had two interceptions, LeGarrette Blount scored twice and the playoff-bound Patriots breezed to a 41-7 victory Sunday, ending the Ravens’ four-game winning streak and diminishing their postseason hopes.
The previous time these two teams met, the AFC title hung in the balance and Baltimore used a strong second half to pull out a 28-13 victory.
In this one, New England took a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter and never let up behind a defense that forced four turnovers and had four sacks.
The Patriots (11-4) were assured their fifth straight AFC East title before the game started when Miami lost at Buffalo. It’s the 11th division crown for New England coach Bill Belichick, tied with Don Shula for most since the 1970 merger.
“Happy to win the AFC East,” Belichick said. “Hopefully, we can build off this game.”
Tom Brady completed 14 of 26 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown. He has led his team to 11 division titles, two more than any other starting quarterback in NFL history.
“They’re all special. It’s hard to come by, and this team’s really fought hard all year,” Brady said. “We’ve earned it. Eleven wins in the NFL’s not easy, and to win a division title’s not easy.”
The loss eliminated the Ravens (8-7) from contention in the AFC North and dropped them into a tie with Miami and San Diego for the final AFC wild-card slot. Baltimore closes the regular season at Cincinnati, which displaced the Ravens as division champs.
“We got to go in there and win. That was going to be the case no matter what,” said Harbaugh, who is in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in his six seasons with Baltimore.
It was the Ravens’ most lopsided loss since a 37-0 defeat at Pittsburgh in 1997. Things went so badly for Baltimore that Justin Tucker’s run of 33 straight field goals ended when he went wide left on a 37-yarder with 14:19 remaining.
Joe Flacco went 22-for-38 for 260 yards and two interceptions for the Ravens, who fell to 6-2 at home.
Wearing a brace on his left knee after being injured last week in Detroit, Flacco had difficulty escaping the unyielding pressure applied by New England’s defensive front.
“I don’t think he played well,” Harbaugh said.
Refusing to use the brace as an excuse, Flacco said, “I would have liked to play better. The brace had nothing to do with anything.”
Baltimore trailed 20-0 late in the third quarter when Ray Rice was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-1 at the New England 4. That effectively ended any chance of a comeback.
The Ravens scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Flacco with 9:21 left, enabling Baltimore to avoid its first shutout loss since 2002, against Tampa Bay.
It was of very little consolation to the defending champs.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” safety James Ihedigbo said. “Definitely a frustrating loss.”
New England scored on a 7-yard run by Blount with 2:05 to go to make it 27-7, then added another touchdown when an errant snap eluded Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Chandler Jones recovered the ball in the end zone.
Tavon Wilson capped the scoring with a 74-yard interception return with 40 seconds remaining.
Baltimore’s previous three games were decided by three points or fewer, but it became evident early that this one would not be close.
New England went up 7-0 on its second possession. A 34-yard pass interference penalty against Jimmy Smith put the ball at the Baltimore 1 before Blount bulled into the end zone.
Three plays later, Flacco threw into double coverage and was intercepted by Ryan at the New England 47. After completing a 34-yard pass to Danny Amendola, Brady connected with Shane Vereen for a 4-yard score.
The Patriots quickly got the ball back, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 45-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to make it 17-0.
Shortly after halftime, the Ravens went for it on fourth-and-3 at the New England 39 and Flacco threw an incomplete pass.
Baltimore’s next possession ended with Ryan’s second interception of the game and fifth of the season. Seven plays later, Gostkowski kicked a 42-yard field goal.
Flacco tried to rally the Ravens, but after a 42-yard completion to Torrey Smith produced a first down at the New England 13, he couldn’t get into the end zone.
Notes: New England DB Devin McCourty left with a head injury, and Vereen left with a groin injury. ... Tucker’s miss was his first since Week 2. ... Baltimore finished with more yardage, 358-300.